These Skiers Are Still Chasing Powder in Their 80s and 90s


It was a bluebird morning at the Alta Ski Area and Carol Bowling, 76, was looking for fresh powder.

Her husband, Nick, 83, and his cousin Bob Phillips, 84, shouted over the whir of the chairlift, deciding where to go. “Something like this is skiable,” Mr. Phillips said of the black diamond run below the lift.

At the top, the trio tightened their boots and waited for a few more friends. It was a Wednesday in late February at the Utah resort, one of the oldest in the country. The morning was cold and crisp with a few inches of new snow.

It was time to ski. The group headed down Devil’s Elbow, a winding intermediate run. Mrs. Bowling found her powder, cutting left from the trail into the pine and spruce trees. The two men stayed together in the open, carving wide S-shaped turns.

When they reached the bottom, it was almost 11 a.m. — time to meet up with Alta’s seniors ski club, the Wild old Bunch.

The Wild old Bunch (with a lowercase “o” to de-emphasize the “old”) started in 1973 and has around 115 members. A few depart each year, some to the deep powder of the afterlife and others to an old age without skiing. Jan Brunvand, 90, suffered a scary fall his first day this season and decided 85 years on skis was enough. But fueled by baby boomers, the group’s rolls stay strong.

“It’s hard to believe 90-year-olds can ski that well until you see them do it,” said Dr. Brett Toresdahl, an associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Utah, who sees plenty of older skiers — in his practice and on the slopes. “You’d assume that it’s foolish for them to continue skiing, but when done carefully and wisely, it can be a great way for them to stay healthy and be in community.”

Some inevitable effects of aging increase the risk of ski injuries. Bone density and muscle mass decrease; reaction time slows and balance falters. Dr. Toresdahl said that when he treats an older skier, it’s most often for a fracture.

But that’s not to say older skiers get hurt more often. They don’t seem to, Dr. Toresdahl said. A series of unspoken rules among the Wild old Bunch help see to that: Only ski on clear days. Ski on weekdays, when the crowds are smaller. Ski familiar territory, where you know the hidden rocks and shady patches from decades of experience.

The Wild old Bunch agree on another reality of skiing with age: Training is necessary. “We work out the rest of the year so that we stay in shape for skiing,” said Mrs. Bowling, who got two trampolines for her local gym so she and her husband could jump back and forth in the off-season.

Keeping fit eases some of the risks, but nobody can ski forever. “It’s not the age that will limit you, but your cardiovascular health,” said Dr. Gina Fernandez, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s medical school who specializes in geriatrics. She steers older skiers toward workouts for strength and stability, but her biggest advice concerns mind-set: Know your limits.

On the slopes, members of the Wild old Bunch ski in small groups or on their own. Around 11 a.m., they gather mid-mountain at the one round table at Alf’s Restaurant for hot drinks, doughnuts and gossip. On a recent Wednesday, 12 skiers pulled up chairs. The friends caught up about upcoming surgeries (one spotted his orthopedist across the room) and boasted about visits from grandchildren.

They also talked about gear. Fredi Jakob, 90, started skiing in leather boots on straight skis made of hickory in 1951. He pulled out his phone and passed around a black-and-white photo: a young couple in front of a mountain, beaming. “We went skiing on our honeymoon in 1957,” he said. “It was 28 below zero, but we didn’t care.”

In the decades since their first runs, the group has witnessed changes to the sport far beyond composite skis and polyurethane boots. Many of them learned to ski before high-speed lifts and overnight snow grooming — or $189 day passes.

Alta is a favorite among older skiers in part because of its senior-friendly policy: Anyone over 80 skis free. Taos Ski Valley, in New Mexico and Mammoth Mountain, in California, have similar rules, and a number of resorts offer steep discounts. For retirees on fixed incomes, that can be a lifeline to the sport that still defines them.

When Matt Kindred, 82, worked as a landscaper and a river guide in the Grand Canyon, he’d regularly do 45-mile backcountry trips on skis. In recent years, he’s slowed down, thanks to a long list of ailments: a major stroke, prostate and colorectal cancer, two hip replacements. “The worst was the colorectal cancer, because I had to ski with a colostomy bag,” he said. “I had to try hard not to crash, because if I did, it would be such a mess.”

But the challenge is part of the point. “I have to work at it. It makes me live longer,” he said. “Besides, I have to keep up with my wife.”

These days, he sticks to the easy trails. He’s weak on his right side and carefully gripped the safety bar on the ski lift. Above a grove of groomed greens, he waved goodbye to his wife, Becky Hammond, 61, who was headed to the blues midway up the mountain. Then Mr. Kindred’s bent figure slowly, steadily worked down the slope

Several other resorts host clubs for older skiers: the Over the Hill Gang at Copper Mountain in Colorado, the Silver Griffins at Bromley in Vermont.

“I wouldn’t be skiing much without this group,” Fran Ando, 92, said of 70+ Ski Club, a national group that goes on trips across the United States and beyond. Last summer, she skied with the club in New Zealand; this February, she joined them in Salt Lake City.

At home in Torrance, Calif., her agility makes her an outlier. “The people I started skiing with have all either died or quit skiing,” she said, relaxing at a group happy hour after a day skiing at Brighton, another resort outside Salt Lake City. “Many of my friends are through this group now.”

Aging often means isolation. And that can take a toll on our overall well-being, said Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our social connections are tied to all sorts of physical health conditions,” he explained, from memory to heart disease.

So it’s significant that older skiers describe a version of aging in community that starts on the slopes and extends to the rest of their lives. Members of the Wild old Bunch regularly get together for birthday parties and summer cookouts; and every Wednesday evening, a rotating cast comes together for dinner at a nearby Olive Garden, where they’re joined by former skiers and non-skiing spouses.

The groups also offers members a way to stay true to their former selves: Once a skier, always a skier.

“Inside of every old, beat-up body on the ski slope is a 16-year-old kid,” said Mr. Phillips, who skis with hearing aids and a knee brace. “And while you keep slowly falling apart, the 16-year-old is still in there.”

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